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The Takeover: The Self-Righteous Faculty and their Self-Righteous Students

In 1987 I published The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe which elicited heated responses. Only now do I see I got something wrong—as did my critics. Some had objected to a term I introduced, “public intellectual,” as redundant and misleading. Others rejected the main argument. I proposed a generational account of American intellectuals. For earlier American intellectuals, the university remained peripheral because it was small, underfunded, and distant from cultural life. The Edmund Wilsons and Lewis Mumfords earlier in the 20th century to the Jane Jacobs and Betty Friedans later saw themselves as writers and journalists, not professors. But I missed something, the dawning takeover of the public sphere by campus denizens and lingo.

What I called a transitional generation, the largely Jewish New York intellectuals, ended up later in their careers as professors, but usually they lacked graduate training. When Daniel Bell was appointed to the faculty of Columbia University in 1960, officials discovered that he did not have a Ph.D.—and bestowed it on him for his collection of essays (The End of Ideology). This incident indicates something of the commitment of these men—and they were men; they wrote essays for a public, not monographs or research papers for colleagues. This orientation was as true for a confrere of Bell, like Irving Howe, who also ended up as a professor without graduate training. He observed that like himself Bell did not want to write long-winded treatises; nor did they want to specialize or get pigeonholed. Or as Bell phrased it for all of them, “I specialize in generalizations.”

But the story changes for the next generation—my ’60s generation. In pose we were much more radical than previous American intellectuals.We were the leftists, Maoists, Marxists, Third Worldists, anarchists, and protesters who regularly shut down the university in the name of the war in Vietnam or free speech or racial equality. Yet for all our university bashing, unlike earlier intellectuals, we never exited the campus. We settled in. We became graduate students, assistant professors and finally—a few of us—leading figures in academic disciplines.

To be sure, this was not simply a series of individual choices. The conditions that funneled the transitional generation onto campuses were hard to resist. The life of the freelance intellectual, always precarious, had become virtually impossible. Living in cities turned increasingly expensive as writing outlets diminished. When Edmund Wilson wrote for The New Republic in the 1920s the proceeds of one article could foot the bill for room and board for several months. Sixty years later the payment could fund a few meals. At the same moment, in the 1950s and ’60s, students poured into campuses and faculties enlarged. For young intellectuals, the signs all pointed in one direction: an academic career. Earlier American intellectuals imagined moving to New York or Chicago or San Francisco to join an urban bohemia; my generation imagined moving to college towns like Ann Arbor or Berkeley or Austin to join the conference-going set.

Within 30 years, the timber and tone of faculties were refashioned. In the 1950s the number of public leftists teaching in American universities could be counted on two hands. By the 1980s, they filled airplanes and hotel conference rooms. In the 1980s a three-volume survey of the new Marxist scholarship appeared (The Left Academy: Marxist Scholarship on American Campuses, vol. 1-3). Endless new journals, each with their own followings, popped up, such as Studies on the Left, Radical Teacher, Radical America, Insurgent Sociologist, Radical Economists. In the coming years leaders of the main scholarly organizations like the Modern Language Association or American Sociological Association elected self-professed leftists.

Herein the story gets tangled. In a series of bestselling books—Tenured Radicals, Illiberal Education, The Closing of the American Mind—conservatives raised the alarm: Radicals were taking over the university and destroying America, if not Western civilization. In The Last Intellectuals I differed. The new radical scholars were proving to be obliging colleagues and professionals. The proof? They penned unreadable articles and books for colleagues. They were less subversive than submissive. Earlier American intellectuals wrote for a public; the new radical ones did not. They were not public intellectuals, but narrow academics.

Read entire article at Tablet